My mum said it, your mum probably said it. But was she right? It turns out, Yes! Mum was right about posture.
"Sit up straight!"
Do you remember when your mother told you that?
Most parents have said it at some point. They see their teenager hunched over the dinner table like a gorilla, shovelling food into their mouth. They recognise that this is not a healthy posture. They want the best for their child so they tell them to sit up straight.
It turns out, mum was right about posture.
Being able to have a long, aligned posture is a fundamental aspect of being a good speaker and communicator.
What Well-Aligned Posture Looks Like
Instinctively, we all know what a healthy posture looks like. When a person has a comfortable, straight posture, we look at them and we are impressed. It's natural.
Look at this image of actor Christopher Walken on stage. He has a long, aligned spine, an open body, and a strong stance. (The only thing I might query is that his neck seems a little pushed forward. If he let his neck be freer, his posture would be even better. However, this might also be the angle of the photo.)
And yet… most of us do not have a well-aligned posture.
Although we recognise it when we see it, we don't know how to achieve it in our own body. From a very young age, we start to develop an unhealthy posture which gets worse and worse throughout our lives.
It turns out that mum was right. But, that's not the whole story.
The problem is that parents don't usually know why they're telling their children to sit up straight. We know that we shouldn't slouch, but we don't know why and we don't know how to achieve it.
On top of this, parents themselves often have the same postural issues as everyone else. Without good role models, we grow up learning unhealthy posture from our parents and from the people around us. Our dad hunches over his computer so we hunch over our computer. Our mum nervously tenses her back and neck when she's socialising so, in time, we learn to tense our back and neck when we are socialising. We pick up bad habits from friends, teachers, TV personalities and pop-stars.
Why Posture Is The Most Important Aspect Of Communication
Posture is important for communication because a well-aligned posture allows your voice to function freely. When your posture is misaligned, you restrict your voice, you restrict your breathing and, as a result, you cannot communicate as effectively as you would like.
In our normal lives, we get by. We have all developed habits which allow us to survive with our less-than-optimal posture. However, when we give a presentation or a speech we suddenly push ourselves into a whole different type of vocal communication. The habits that work in the rest of our lives are no longer enough.
When I speak in front of a small group of people, I have a tendency to tense my neck. When I get on stage to give a presentation, this becomes even more pronounced. My neck can become very tense. As a result, when I try to speak loudly so that the audience can hear me clearly I end up pushing my voice. It quickly begins to feel sore.
If I didn't know how to counteract this effect, I would end up damaging my voice.
A lot of voice work, in the beginning, is all about noticing where and when you are tense in your body. It's about learning to release that tension before you speak. In fact, if you can learn to just release the tension in your body before you give a presentation, you can become a far more effective communicator even without doing any other voice work.
Why "Sit Up Straight" Is Not Good Advice
Correct posture happens when your spine is in its natural alignment.
Our spines have a natural alignment. We are born — except in some unusual cases — with our spine in its natural shape. When your spine has that shape, you are able to be free from all tension.
The natural shape of the spine is shown in this image, along with some examples of well-aligned (top) and misaligned (bottom) posture.
As you can see, the natural shape of the spine is not exactly straight. It has a natural curve.
Although mum was right in principle, the words she used were not the best ones.
"Sit up straight" can actually be harmful to the spine.
Because the natural shape of the spine is a curve, there are extremes in both directions. You can have a spine which is too bent but you can also have a spine which is too straight, as shown in the following illustration.
This is sometimes a danger when we say "Sit up straight" or "Stand up straight". We have a tendency to over-straighten the spine.
Don't say "Sit up straight". Say "My spine is long and free. My neck is long and free. My shoulders are wide and free from tension."
How to Improve Your Posture
The first step to having a better posture is to simply notice how you're holding your spine.
A mirror can be a useful tool.
F.M. Alexander, the actor who invented the Alexander Technique, used a whole roomful of mirrors to troubleshoot his voice problems. He noticed that he was throwing his head back when he spoke on stage, which put his head, neck and back out of alignment, eventually resulting in losing his voice.
The Alexander Technique is a very popular and well-established method for learning better posture — or, more correctly, it is a method to unlearn bad postural habits.
I like the Alexander technique. Not just because it shares my name, but because it is very simple and can be applied to all areas of your life. I also like it because (and this important to me) it has been actively developed for over a century and has been shown to be effective in various good-quality research studies for over 20 years.
Just like F.M. Alexander, you can use mirrors to check your posture.
In my bathroom, I have a full-length mirror. When I'm cleaning my teeth, I often look in the mirror to check how I am holding my spine. Often, I am surprised to see that I am off-balance and/or my spine is bent. Sometimes I am leaning all my weight on only one leg. Sometimes I am hunched over the sink. Sometimes I find that my shoulders are hunched up around my ears. Without looking in the mirror, I wouldn't know how my body was held because the misaligned posture is so much of a habit.
I look in the mirror and I reset my posture to be more long and free.
Relearning your natural posture is a long-term activity. We all have years or decades of experience holding our body out of alignment. It takes time to unlearn these habits.
The first step is to notice how you hold yourself and how other people around you hold themselves.
Start looking at people and imagine you are everyone's mother.
Mentally tell them: "Allow your spine to be long and free!"